Researchers Upbeat About U.S. Plan to Ease Export Rules on Space Technology

Go for launch? New export rules would ease U.S. efforts to collaborate internationally on space research projects, such as the launch of this science satellite from California in March 2000.

Diana Helgesen/Sandia National Laboratory

U.S. scientists and companies could soon find it easier to collaborate with international partners on projects involving potentially sensitive spacecraft technologies. The Obama administration has opened public comment on new rules designed to ease government controls on exporting space-related technologies, such as satellites, that could have military applications. Existing U.S. export controls have drawn criticism from scientists and space industry executives, who say that they have hampered collaboration with foreign colleagues and customers.

U.S. export controls have been "a real complication for cooperative space activities," says Jorge Vago, project scientist for the European Space Agency's (ESA's) ExoMars program. And if the new U.S. rules "reclassify spacecraft in such a way that all the singing and dancing that is required at present could be avoided, this would constitute a great step."

The new rules are designed to streamline the process of getting export permits. Now, the U.S. government closely regulates export of space-related technologies under rules known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are overseen by the U.S. Department of State. In 1999, responding to a controversy over the alleged theft of U.S. space technologies by China and other nations, Congress passed legislation that required all space-related technologies to be listed and tightly regulated as "munitions" under the ITAR framework, making the United States the only space power with such a policy. Lawmakers also barred the White House from exempting any technologies from the regulations.

In practice, the moves meant U.S. companies and researchers seeking a government permit to share technologies with foreign partners faced "a presumption of denial," says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. "If you want to export something the answer is no unless you have a specific waiver or exemption."

Over the years, that stance drew extensive criticism, and in 2010 Congress required the secretaries of defense and state to evaluate the potential dangers and benefits of removing certain space-related items from the munitions list. The resulting report concluded that U.S. export policies were far stiffer than those adopted by other space powers and that they placed "the U.S. satellite industry at a distinct, competitive disadvantage that undermines the U.S. space industrial base to the detriment of U.S. national security." The report also recommended that Congress once again give the president the power to decide which space technologies were listed as munitions.

Last year, Congress did just that, empowering the White House to remove space technologies from the ITAR framework and regulate them instead under the less onerous Export Administration Regulations (EAR) run by the U.S. Department of Commerce. And last month, the Obama administration followed up, identifying a number of space technologies that it wants to reclassify and take off the munitions list as part of a "common sense approach to overhauling the nation's export control system."

The proposal doesn't list specific products or devices; instead, it focuses on defining capabilities that might make a satellite or space technology valuable to military forces, and not just civilians. That threshold-setting approach means many research-related technologies, such as weather satellites and NASA research probes, will fall off the munitions list, says Mark Mulholland, a senior adviser at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C.

In essence, GWU's Pace says, the proposal "takes the entire category [of spacecraft] and, instead of saying all space items are by definition munitions items, it goes back and makes a little more nuanced treatment." The change, he adds, should make the process of getting an export permit from the Commerce Department "easier to deal with." ESA's Vago predicts that "relaxing ITAR for space activities … would be good for both U.S. and European industry."

Public comment on the administration's proposal is due by 8 July.